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Olympic dreams: Sain hopes passion for rugby could bring chance to don Team USA colors

The dream began years ago for Crystal Sain, the idea she could one day compete athletically while wearing American red, white and blue.

Back then, in her mind, she was soccer standout Mia Hamm, helping the U.S. team win another World Cup. And though her soccer career at Polk County High School didn’t lead to international glory in the sport, Sain never quite forgot the vision of donning a Team USA uniform.

Now, 10 years removed from her time as a Wolverine, Sain is breathing new life into that dream – in one of the most rugged team sports on the planet.

In late June, Sain will attend the 2015 Women’s Elite 7s Resident Camp in Glendale, Colo., training with coaches and members of the U.S. women’s rugby team, the USA Eagles. With rugby 7s, a scaled-down, uptempo form of the game, slated to be part of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Sain hopes the camp could lead to a spot on that team – and the realization of that lifelong dream.

“The idea that I might have shot to be some little girl’s inspiration to play the sport of rugby means more than anyone could ever know,” Sain said. “The fact that rugby is now back in the Olympics and is becoming the fastest growing sport in the world is a huge, huge deal. I think it’s always been a far-off dream to represent my country at some level.”

The Colorado camp will represent the next step in what has been quite a journey for Sain.

Crystal Sain is using GoFundMe to help support her trip to Colorado. Click here to find out how to help support Sain in her USA Eagles quest.

Graduating from Polk County in 2005, Sain entered college at Appalachian State, where she tried out for the women’s soccer squad and was offered a chance to join the program as a redshirt freshman. But fate, and former Polk County teammate Sarah Mosseller, intervened, introducing Sain to the school’s rugby club. She immediately became enthralled by the sport.

“My initial response was ‘what the heck is that?’,” Sain said. “I had no idea what the sport entailed, but once I set foot on the field, the girls, the atmosphere, the intensity, the family, the sisterhood – it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was everything I wish soccer had been, and from that moment on I was hooked. I felt like I had found my purpose again, found my place, my true passion.”

Graduation from Appalachian led to a move to San Diego, where she both found a job and an opportunity to play elite level rugby. Competing with the San Diego Surfers, one of the nation’s top women’s clubs, Sain was part of two national championship teams and had a tryout scheduled with the head coach of the U.S. women’s 15s squad (15s is the more traditional form of the game) before a knee injury three days ahead of that workout ended that shot.

“I felt like I had missed my big chance to take my game to the highest level,” Sain said.

Corporate upheaval also led Sain to make another decision – moving back to North Carolina for a new job in Charlotte. She did so knowing that it would likely mean the end of her rugby career.

“I was almost positive I wouldn’t be playing rugby ever again,” Sain said. “Having played at such a high level with players in the Eagle pool and under a coach who is now the assistant head coach for the 7s National and Olympic-bound team, coming back to Charlotte, I didn’t anticipate ever having the desire to play. If I was going to play, I wanted to play at a high level. Getting older, I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time, my body and my effort for a team who didn’t have the mindset to make a run at another national championship.

“I had tasted that victory with the San Diego Surfers in 2011 and 2012, and I wasn’t willing to take a step down. The closest Women’s Premier League team, the highest tier of the competitive club brackets, to us is in Atlanta, and commuting eight hours round trip two times a week to practice just wasn’t going to happen. So I stepped away.”

sain2Sain returned to soccer and played two seasons with the Carolina Rapids club in the Charlotte area, but rugby kept calling. The sport is perhaps best explained as a combination of soccer and football, but even that doesn’t do it justice.

“It’s a high-intensity, high-impact, team-orientated sport where the athletes tackle, ruck, maul, and kick,” Sain said. “Passes are only made laterally or backwards. A penalty ensues any time the ball is dropped or lost forward in contact, and this is where the scrum ensures where players battle to regain possession of the ball. When played at the highest level, it’s a clean, quick and exhilarating game of phases and breakdowns. A try (a score) is not counted until the ball is actually touched to the ground after entering into the try zone. This is where football stole the ‘touchdown’ concept from. Players do not wear pads of any sort – only a mouthguard is required. A soft scrum cap is wore by certain players to protect their ears in scrums and rucks (much like a wrestler wears headgear to prevent cauliflower ear). In rugby, jersey numbers denote your position on the field.

“The family, the camaraderie – you can meet a perfect stranger and find out they are a fellow rugger and instantly you feel connected to them. It’s truly a sisterhood, a brotherhood that breaks any and all language, background, racial, age, gender, religious and political barriers. If we can speak rugby to one another, we’re all good. The best part is you have these other fifteen to twenty-five girls on your team, all walks of life, in all sorts of jobs and careers, at different stages and seasons of their life. But when we step on to that field together, we’re united, one team, one goal, and everyone plays for the person standing next to them. It’s the most incredible team sport out there.”

Sain, who is the head trainer and strength coach at Raw Fitness, eventually decided to return to the sport with the Charlotte Rugby Club. Her play there as well as her results at a couple of Team USA developmental tryouts and combines helped earn her an invitation to Colorado, where she will give her dream another go.

“I can’t say I am the most skilled player by any means,” Sain said. “But what I can promise you is on and off the field, whether it’s training at the gym, practice or game, no one is going to outwork me. Ask anyone who knows me, there is no give up. I’ll die trying and I think that’s what’s kept me time and time again going forward through injury, through adversity. Somewhere deep down my faith, a faith in someone much bigger than me, has always whispered, just keep going, just keep moving, just keep digging, it’s not time to give up.

“So that’s what I’m doing.”

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